The National Security Committee (KNB) has announced a major coup in its anti-terrorist operations. In a televised interview, the first deputy director of the National Security Committee, Vladimir Bozhko, disclosed that the security services have uprooted a network of al-Qaeda terrorist operatives in Kazakhstan. He said that the terrorist cell included eight Kazakhs and four Uzbek nationals, who had been perpetrating subversive activities in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan under direct orders from two leaders of the network, Akhmad Bekmurazyev and Zakshybek Biimurzayev. The latter, according to the KNB, was a resident of the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan and played a significant role during the Islamic militant incursions into the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. Reportedly, Biimurzayev. who possessed Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz passports, belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and directed IMU activities in Kazakhstan. Bozhko held members of the group responsible for a “series of terrorist acts in Uzbekistan” carried out this year and noted that Biimurzayev. had trained alongside the notorious mercenary Khattab, who was killed in Chechnya, as well as in Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorist training camps (Khabar TV, November 11).
What makes Bozhko’s revelation “sensational,” as some media sources have described it, is that it is the first time that Kazakhstan’s security services have reported the arrest of al-Qaeda members who, until recently, were exclusively associated with Afghanistan. Two events that preceded the arrest of suspected terrorists seem to be significant in this context. Last month the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan banned four organizations, including al-Qaeda, describing them as terrorist organizations. The decision was prompted by a KNB appeal to the Supreme Court. The security services launched a massive undercover operation to substantiate allegations about the existence of “extremist forces” in Kazakhstan, which had been officially claimed by the chief of the National Security Committee (see EDM, October 19).
Second, the arrest of suspected al-Qaeda members came on the heels of the October 29 visit to Kazakhstan by the U.S. first deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. In his talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Armitage thanked Kazakhstan for its global anti-terrorist stance, particularly regarding Afghanistan and Iraq. This gesture was taken in Kazakhstan as a signal to deepen its cooperation with the United States within the framework of combating international terrorism. Cooperation offers Kazakhstan the possibility of getting additional American military aid to strengthen its own security while polishing its image as an anti-terrorist state committed to democracy. And last, but not least, the National Security Service has reiterated all along that the source of the terrorist threat in Central Asia emanates from Uzbekistan (despite Uzbek allegations about the existence of terrorist camps in South Kazakhstan).
Bozhko picked up this theme when he said that the arrested terrorists were affiliated with the “Jamaat of Central Asian Mujahideen,” an Islamic extremist organization founded by militant members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and affiliated with al-Qaeda. The group directed all its activities against Uzbekistan. Bozhko categorically denied “unsubstantiated accusations” concerning the existence of terrorist training camps on the territory of Kazakhstan, and he added that Kazakhstan’s security services have handed over 20 active terrorists to their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (Aikyn, November 12).
Almost simultaneously with the arrests, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Kazakhstan made the decision to extradite three residents of South Kazakhstan region, suspected of involvement in the terrorist attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara region, to Uzbekistan. The only official explanation for the extradition was that the names of the three, brothers Abdunabi and Azamat Kadyrakhunov and Yelmurat Mammatkulov, had been mentioned by the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan (Megapolis, November 4).
Evidently, the detention of the alleged al-Qaeda terrorists was also part of an attempt by Kazakhstan’s Security Services to demonstrate that they are capable of counteracting well organized, international groups operating under the al-Qaeda banner. After all, al-Qaeda is universally recognized as a more serious threat than Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
It should be recalled that last year the International Crisis Group warned the governments of Central Asia against banning Hizb-ut-Tahrir, pointing out that declaring this religious organization to be illicit would encourage authoritarian regimes in the region to discriminate against people on religious grounds and violate human rights, which would slow the pace of political and economic reforms (Panorama, #27, July 2003). In this context, al-Qaeda seems to be a convenient trump card for the KNB to score propaganda points.
Nevertheless, this unprecedented and surprisingly easy victory for the KNB over an efficient, intricate network linked to al-Qaeda raises certain doubts. According to investigators, members of the terrorist cell were not planning terrorist attacks against Kazakhstan, and they received their training in Taliban and al-Qaeda camps “abroad.” No country was named in this connection. The KNB announced that the terrorists were looting private apartments in Shymkent (South Kazakhstan) in order to finance their terrorist activities, although they were actually being funded from abroad (Khabar, November 11). Again, no country or organization was specified. It is hard to believe that a serious terrorist organization linked to the powerful al-Qaeda would stoop to robbing ordinary citizens. Too many questions remain about the sensational KNB victory to take the news at face value.